We take a close look at the worldwide water shortage. How does it happen? What can be done about it? We try to shed some light in today’s article.
The world is facing a slowly worsening crisis in the coming years, and it’s predicted to become a global crisis by 2025. Today, half a billion people live in conditions of water scarcity, but, if current trends continue, demand will outpace supply by 40% by the year 2030.
Only 3% of the water on earth is fresh water, suitable for drinking, and nearly all of the fresh water supply is difficult to access, leaving just 0.014% of our planet’s water available for our needs. Although it is such a tiny percentage of the earth’s water, at the moment that small amount of fresh water is still just about sufficient to satisfy all our needs.
In today’s article, we take a close look at the main causes of water scarcity. Why is this a problem in today’s modern world?
We also take a look at some of the solutions on offer. Things need to change and change soon.
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How Do We Use Fresh Water?
Human needs for water are tremendous. Not only is clean drinking water necessary for our biological survival, but it is also essential in the preparation of many of the foods that we rely upon, and crucial for basic hygiene that keeps us healthy.
Even in cases of extreme water scarcity and shortage, the average person still needs a minimum of 7.5 liters of water every day to survive and maintain health.
But, aside from our needs for basic survival consumption and hygiene, we also use water in dozens of ways every single day, and it is an essential facet of every part of human life.
Here are just some of the ways that we use water:
- Household cleaning and sanitation: While we all need water to bathe ourselves in and keep our bodies clean, we also use water to wash clothes, dishes, floors, and household surfaces and utensils. In communities with flushing toilets, we use liters of water every time we use the bathroom.
- Community cleaning and sanitation: Cities use and require water for public sanitation and the operation of sewer systems, as well as in fire preparation and prevention methods, cleaning of public and private buildings, roads, and sidewalks. Cities also provide water-consuming public services, like public parks and recreational areas that frequently require water.
- Agricultural crops: Of course we also use water to grow healthy fruits, grains, and vegetables required for our food production. We also grow cotton, which is the most water-consuming crop in the world, requiring 7,000 – 29,000 liters of water per kilogram of harvested cotton. Rice and sugar cane are also crops that require large quantities of water to grow.
- Agricultural livestock: In addition to using water to grow crops, water is also necessary to grow healthy livestock. Cattle, horses, and mules all require 20-30 liters of drinking water per animal per day in order to stay healthy. And cattle and horses in a farm setting also require water-consuming food to eat, like alfalfa and other grains. In fact, the global average is that it takes 1,799 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef.
- Electric power: Dams are praised for being a source of energy that doesn’t require any fossil fuels, and produces no emissions. As of 2014, dams produced over 16% of the world’s electricity, and dams are often seen as a solution for increasing power needs in parts of the world where fossil fuels are scarce. Large amounts of water are also necessary to cool nuclear and coal-fueled power plants.
- Transportation: Rivers remain one of the world’s most ancient and essential ways of transporting people and goods.
- Industry and manufacturing: Many industries require large quantities of water in the production of goods. Tanneries, paper mills, textile mills, and steel mills require enormous amounts of water. Traditional mining of metals and ores does not need large amounts of water, but fracking consumes large amounts of freshwater. For example, Oklahoma used 10 billion gallons of fresh water in fracking operations between 2005-2012, which amounted to 2% of all the fresh water in the state.
As you can imagine, water scarcity and water shortages have the potential to impact nearly every aspect of a person’s life, from the way they clean their home to the way they work and the services provided by their government. And this list only includes direct human use of water. Recent years have shown that drought conditions in wilderness areas can cause wildfires with catastrophic consequences.
Recommended Reading: Don’t miss our article on ocean pollution next!
Causes of Water Scarcity
In one sense, freshwater scarcity is simply a fact of life on earth. There is only so much fresh water available, and there has always been water scarcity in certain climates, regions, and seasons.
For most of the history of the planet, access to fresh water has shaped everything from the migration of animals, the sites of human habitation, to the kinds of agricultural and industrial activities possible in a given place. Water scarcity is a fact of life. However, recent decades have made it more problematic and increased awareness, largely due to two factors:
Cause of Water Scarcity #1: Increasing Demand
- Population: The past 100 years have seen incredible growth in the human population, due to medical advances that have prolonged life and improved mortality rates, and agricultural improvements that have increased the food supply. In 1800, there were only one billion people on earth. But in recent history, we have added another billion people to the planet every 12 years, from 6 billion in 1999 to 7 billion in 2011, to an anticipated 8 billion in 2023.
- Urbanization: In addition to the sheer population growth overall, we are experiencing increased urbanization. In 1950, 30% of the people in the world lived in cities. By 2050, it’s expected to be nearly 70%. As we have seen above, cities themselves consume water, and as they grow, they consume more.
- Competition: These factors have increased competition for fresh water, often unintentionally. Cities like Las Vegas and Dubai were founded in areas with natural water scarcity. As those cities have grown, they have strained the water supply for the surrounding region, increasing competition for fresh water. The Colorado River once ran to the Gulf of California, supplying fresh water for downriver needs in Arizona and California, but now it seldom reaches the gulf at all. As Las Vegas consumes ever more water, communities, wildlife habitats, and industries downriver are impacted, and this kind of competition is playing out in hundreds of climates, countries, and communities all over the world.
- Climate: Finally, global climate change is impacting fresh water supplies everywhere. Higher temperatures mean reduced snowfalls and shrinking glaciers, as well as increasing the percentage of fresh water evaporation. Our rivers, aquifers, and watersheds simply have less water in them than they once did.
- War: Conflict is an often-overlooked factor that affects access to water supplies. In times of war, the boundaries of countries become muddled and often key water supplies like rivers become natural front lines in the conflict. This makes access to some of these rivers incredibly difficult. There’s also the fact that thousands and sometimes millions of people may have to leave their homes and become refugees in another region. How does this new area keep up with the water demands of the sudden new population?
Cause of Water Scarcity #2: Compromised Supply
In the last section, we learned the reasons why the demand for water is increasing. In this section, we learn the reasons why our water supplies are being tainted. We are facing increasing levels of pollution which are leading to dwindling water supplies. Let’s find out what else is compromising our water supply.
- Pollution: Large amounts of our surface water (lakes, rivers, oceans, etc.) are polluted by urban sewage and wastewater, agricultural runoff, and industrial wastewater. In 2000, the US EPA found that 40% of American rivers and 45% of American lakes were polluted. In developing countries, as much as 70% of industrial waste and 80% of sewage is discharged untreated into the water supply. Read more about water pollution here.
- Overuse: Overuse in agricultural is a major source of fresh water scarcity. When farms and fields consume more fresh water than necessary, it reduces the amount of water available for other purposes. Agricultural overuse also adds to pollution, as the runoff from fields and farms carries pollutants like fertilizers and pesticides into nearby rivers, lakes, and streams. Nitrogen-rich fertilizers cause algal blooms in water ecosystems, which deplete the water of oxygen and can kill most life in it. Golf courses are another major contributor to water overuse and pollution in the same way.
- Waste: A lot of fresh water is simply wasted through simple things like excess toilet flushing, inefficient showerheads, and dishwashers, and using water (like pressure washers) to replace sweeping or scrubbing.
- Environmental factors: Deforestation removes trees that protect watersheds and improve water quality. Forests play an important role in the water cycle, by reducing runoff and stabilizing water flows, and helping water return into the atmosphere as clouds. Urban expansion requires roads that increase ambient temperatures, remove native plant species, and increase water runoff.
- Runoff: Runoff is the term for rainwater that falls on land and then flows downstream into the water system. In a natural water cycle, a large percentage of rainwater would be absorbed by the earth, flowing down into the aquifer and replenishing groundwater. Or rainwater would be absorbed by plants in a natural environment, where much of that water would eventually be returned to the atmosphere. However, buildings, roads, and pavement redirect rainwater away from the soil and into drainage systems, preventing it from reaching aquifers or nourishing plants. These processes not only accelerate fresh rainwater along a path to the ocean, reducing our level of readily-available fresh water, but runoff water is often contaminated along the way with urban trash and litter, spills and leaks from cars that leave oil or chemicals on roads and driveways, and chemical runoff from fertilizers and pesticides used in urban lawns, parks, and golf courses.
So we not only have a global shortage of fresh water, but our habits, lifestyles, and behaviors tend to contaminate the water we do have.
Find out where your water comes from in this article.
Solutions for Water Shortages
However, the situation isn’t as grim as it may seem. There are many ways that we can begin to address global water scarcity and ensure that we have plenty of fresh water now and in the future. The situation is complex, but it isn’t hopeless.
Here are our best water scarcity solutions right now:
- Greywater: We need to reconsider and expand our use of greywater. Greywater is water that has been used domestically, but is not overly polluted with organic contaminants. Greywater isn’t sewage (the water that drains from your house when you flush the toilet) but is the other water that is drained away from a house, including water that has been used for laundry or dishwashing, showers or baths, and sometimes water from cooking (like when you drain pasta). Greywater has tremendous potential to be lightly treated, requiring less processing than sewage, and be reused as water for toilets, farm irrigation, cleaning, radiant heating etc. We do not need to use fresh, potable water for all these purposes, and could develop systems that more efficiently re-use water that has been used once.
- Conservation: From individuals to governments, industry and agriculture, we need to find ways to reduce water consumption. Particularly in the developed world, where fresh water is often taken for granted, we need to rethink our excessive consumption of water and look for ways to use it more wisely.
- Prevent pollution: From urban runoff to the dumping of waste water to excessive use of chemicals and pesticides, we need to prevent pollution of fresh water where possible. We should increase monitoring of water, look for natural alternatives to chemical solutions, and systematically take better care of our water.
Water shortages are pushing many regions to the brink of crisis and may lead to future conflicts and even wars. Water is the most fundamental, essential element of life, and water crisis solutions are desperately needed to ensure peace and prosperity. Solving water shortages requires widespread agreement between people, industries, and governments so that we can all work together globally to preserve and protect our supply of fresh water.
Although fresh water is a limited and finite resource, we do have enough fresh water on earth to meet all our needs for centuries to come, provided we take steps to preserve and protect it. Water scarcity has the power to push us to the brink of terrible conflicts or to unite us with a common bond and sense of purpose. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity to come together before it is too late.
Ever wondered why we can’t just make water in the science lab? We’ve got all the answers here.
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